POLITICS
10/29/2013 03:43 pm ET

Cory Booker's Push For Criminal Justice Reform Gets Boost From Harry Reid, Eric Holder

WASHINGTON -- Criminal justice reform will be at the top of Sen.-elect Cory Booker's (D-N.J.) agenda when he is sworn in on Thursday, and he has already spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about the role he will be able to play.

"It was the first issue I brought up with the leader," said Booker in an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday, referring to an earlier conversation he had with Reid.

Booker handily beat his opponent, Republican Steve Lonegan, in an Oct. 16 special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). In August, Booker unveiled an ambitious criminal justice reform agenda, which included ending the use of private prisons and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.

Reid told The Huffington Post that he put Booker in touch with former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who also advocated for criminal justice reform before retiring from the chamber last year. Booker said he has not yet been able to connect personally with Webb.

"[Reid] was very helpful, not just with pointing out Sen. Webb as somebody to meet with when I'm down in D.C., but other thoughts that he had that were very constructive about how I can get to work on this issue right away," Booker said, characterizing Reid as "supportive and encouraging" of his desire to focus on reform.

"And he said that since Sen. Webb has left, this would be a great issue for me to try to champion, along with my colleagues," he added.

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder called for "sweeping, systemic changes" to the criminal justice system. The Justice Department is no longer listing drug quantities in indictments of certain low-level drug offenders, allowing defendants who lack ties to gangs, violence and large-scale drug trafficking organizations to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

At an event in D.C. with mayors from around the country later in August, Holder's staff approached him and talked about working together, Booker said.

"[They] just said the attorney general liked some of your ideas, let's talk further," Booker said. "I have a lot of respect for him, and I look forward to working with him to every extent possible."

A Justice Department official confirmed that the attorney general hopes to work with Booker once he takes office.

"It's one of those issues that having been a mayor on the front lines for the fight for safety and security -- as well as on the front lines of trying to help the men and women that are being chewed up and disempowered by the drug war -- I have a deep reservoir of knowledge and experience on the issue that's going to be incredibly helpful that will help me get off the ground running," said Booker.

"But please, I want to control expectations in the sense that I'm not going to be dropping a bill on Friday on this issue," he added, saying it was important to first learn how the Senate works.

Criminal justice reform is an issue that has advocates on both sides of the aisle, and Booker said he is hopeful he will find Republicans to work with in the Senate.

"I have hope and aspiration that [I will be able to do so], but I haven't had conversations," he said. "Some great people in the Republican Party have reached out to me. Marco Rubio left me an incredible congratulatory voicemail. I was happy to hear from him."

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